_This summer, we are running a series profiling 50 exciting players under the age of 25 — who they are, how they play, and why they are attracting interest during this transfer window. _

You can find all our profiles so far here, including “the Gen-Z Sergio Busquets”, the Canada striker determined to become a household name and the French midfielder who can do it all.

Football has always come easy to Samuel Chukwueze, but it hasn’t always been the game that he was destined to play.

“I got home from training really late again when I was 13”, he recalled in an interview with the Spanish football show El Dia Despues, “so my mother took my boots, my training top, put it all in a rubbish bag and burnt it all.”

A distraction from his studies, Chukwueze’s passion interfered with his future.

It was only his grandmother, eventually talking the family around, that allowed ‘Samu’ his shot at stardom. Trials close to home in Nigeria followed, with a trip to play a tournament in Portugal his reward for being one of the best players.

The first time that he had ever left his hometown, and with his mother’s blessing, Chukwueze dazzled with his dribbling and never looked back.

Just 10 years on from watching his only pair of boots smoulder, Chukwueze finds himself making a move to one of Europe’s most illustrious clubs, AC Milan, having already created history with another.

Aged 16, he signed a pre-contract with Spanish side Villarreal, after a deal with Arsenal fell through.

Five seasons and 207 appearances later, Chukwueze not only helped the Yellow Submarine to their first-ever major honour, lifting the UEFA Europa League in 2021, but he also fired them into the following season’s Champions League semi-final with an unforgettable breakaway goal at Bayern Munich.

He took us through to the semi-finals.@chukwueze_8 talks about his goal to get us to where we are today.#UCL pic.twitter.com/c0QW9cwH8z

— Villarreal CF English (@VillarrealCFen) May 3, 2022

“Everyone loves Samu”, a source at Villarreal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their position, told The Athletic. “No one at the club has a bad word to say about him.”

“He’s always really happy and in a good mood. His rise from the under-19s to the first team took less than a year, which is unheard of really.”

He is shy and grounded off the pitch, but he lets his football do the talking.

An admirer of Jay-Jay Okocha as he grew up, years of devotion to dribbling means that Chukwueze is one of few players in Europe that can consistently tie defenders in knots.

Operating primarily on the right flank, the 24-year-old often wastes no time in taking on his man, always looking to tempt the challenge with an attacking first touch before jinking away from the outstretched boot.

Even when opposing teams double up, Chukwueze’s commitment and creativity mean that he is still difficult to mark out of the game, as shown below against Real Sociedad, squirming between two challenges before bearing down on goal and forcing a good save from Alex Remiro.

The numbers paint a similar picture, showing Chukwueze to be one of the most efficient dribblers in La Liga. As the scatter plot below shows, Chukwueze boasted the second-highest success rate of any player to have attempted more than six take-ons per game last season, beating his man 49.1 percent of the time.

While not quite as relentless in the volume of his attempts as Vinicius Junior, Chukwueze was the closest player to the Brazilian in terms of the overall total of successful dribbles across the whole of 2022-23, having beaten his man on 86 occasions. Vinicius completed 112, but from 131 more attempts than the Nigerian. Quality enables Chukwueze to keep up with quantity.

More than ever, he is following up his take-ons with end product, especially when it comes to creating chances for his tea-mates. Last season was the Nigerian’s most prolific in terms of assists — providing five killer passes, all from the left half-space.

His dribbling has been crucial for Villarreal to pick their way through stubborn blocks, like against the five-man defence of Getafe below.

As usual, Chukwueze receives the ball on the right and instantly squares up to his man. Aware of his ability to chop inside, striker Borja Mayoral drops deep to block Chukwueze’s route to a left-footed shot on goal.

Manipulating the ball with quick touches, Chukwueze feints to cut inside before producing a quick stepover and then ducking away to the right, leaving Gaston Alvarez wrong-footed, poking his boot at fresh air.

Having escaped the challenge, Chukwueze drives towards the byline and rolls the ball back for Jose Luis Morales to score.

When it comes to taking on the shot himself, Chukwueze has a trademark.

Much like Antony at Manchester United, the Nigerian often looks to cut in from the right and aim for the far corner. As the shot-location graphic below illustrates, Chukwueze isn’t afraid to try his luck from range, and particularly likes the zone to the right of the penalty area, allowing him plenty of distance to set the ball outside the post and bend it into the corner.

Most notably, Chukwueze scored a sensational winning goal at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, to top off the best individual performance of his Villarreal career.

Receiving the ball on the corner of the box, he shuffles across the edge of the penalty area before guiding a perfectly placed shot beyond the despairing dive of Thibaut Courtois.

There have been some spectacular efforts along the way too, as against Sevilla below, where Chukwueze’s dribbling ability saw him burst past Marcos Acuna before unleashing an effort that bounced off the crossbar and away.

The data suggests that, while his shooting technique has undeniably improved, Chukwueze could benefit from varying his decision-making when he receives the ball with space to shoot.

Despite being his primary shooting zone, the below shot map outlines an area from which Chukwueze scored only once from 67 attempts on goal across his five seasons in the Spanish top flight.

All but one of those attempts were left-footed efforts, with 20 drifting wide of the left post and a further 24 being blocked, pointing to an insistence at finding that curled finish towards the far corner.

He can sometimes try to force the angle, leading to overhit shots as he tries to force a way through no matter what.

Here against Real Betis, for example, Chukwueze receives the pass and instantly sets up to cut inside, controlling the ball with the outside of his boot. Juan Foyth had made a storming underlapping run, but the winger has already made up his mind.

Having darted away from full-back Juan Miranda, Chukwueze is charged down by Andres Guardado, and elects to quickly take the shot before the shooting angle is closed. Leaning back, his rushed attempt flies over the bar and into the stands.

His dribbling was as incisive as always, drawing in three players and creating space for the simple lay-off, but Chukwueze would benefit from resisting his favourite shot more often, especially when the set-up is not quite right.

He certainly has the ability to mix things up — emphatically shown by his assist against Getafe — and he tends to be effective when he decides to drive to the touchline.

His attacking carries map below tells much the same story, affirming not only his productivity down the right-hand side with the ball at his feet but also his improved output when he releases it.

Chukwueze is too talented to stop taking on the spectacular shot, but slightly more variety in the final action would surely see his attacking output increase.

While generally a touchline-hugging winger, Chukwueze can be extremely effective when he wanders into smaller spaces in the middle of the pitch.

During a sizzling run of form between February and April last season, Chukwueze scored five, assisted three more and won a crucial penalty in the space of just eight games. Chukwueze was notably effective in central areas in this spell, from a first-time volley against Osasuna to a delicate dinked finish at Mallorca.

His opener at the Bernabeu highlighted how dangerous he can be from the middle, applying the effortless finishing touch to his dribble in one sweeping move.

🔥 Twist, turn… ⚽️

😎 @chukwueze_8 up to his old #LaligaSantander tricks again. #LaLigaHighlights pic.twitter.com/mrqNAErraR

— LALIGA English (@LaLigaEN) April 12, 2023

Similarly, in a Champions League-chasing clash with Real Sociedad, Chukwueze picks up the ball further back, immediately looking to run at the back-line. First, he chops inside Igor Zubeldia and bursts through the gap…

… before nipping in ahead of Martin Zubimendi and drawing the foul.

Joining up with the similarly electric Rafael Leao at San Siro, you can be sure that Serie A full-backs and centre-backs alike will be drawing nervous red rings around their dates with the Rossoneri in 2023-24.

(Header image: Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images, design: Sam Richardson)